Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The battle between unions and state governments continued this week — just as it has for the last two years — in territory normally considered friendly for labor organizations. In the winter of 2011, Wisconsin forced an end to mandatory union contributions for state employees — and conservatives subsequently fought through two recalls, leaving in place both the public-employee union reforms and the GOP governor who forced the issue. Indiana followed suit in 2012, passing right-to-work legislation, becoming the first Rust Belt state to do so. Both state legislatures faced massive union protests, but in the end, very little electoral punishment for reforming workplaces to allow employee choice for funding union activities.

That set the stage for what might have been the most unlikely battleground for the right-to-work movement: Michigan. The home of the American auto industry has a long, proud tradition of unionism. Unlike most other states, where unions mainly represent public-sector workers, the private-sector unions have remained strong in the Wolverine State, primarily in the auto industry. Their political power was demonstrated in the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, especially in the government intervention in the bankruptcy process for both companies, which favored the unions over senior investors. If any state could resist right-to-work legislation, it should have been Michigan and its union movement.

However, the state legislature passed not one but a series of bills that significantly change the way unions will have to operate — and not just public-sector unions as in Wisconsin, but all unions, just as in Indiana. No longer will employers deduct dues from paychecks automatically, regardless of the desire of the employee to fund the union at all. No longer can unions force a "closed shop" environment in which employees either must join the union or pay "agency fees" in exchange for representation. Instead, the unions will have to convince employees in unionized shops to pay dues voluntarily.  

Needless to say, unions and reformers have much different views about the outcome of right-to-work legislation. Both offer highly charged allegations about the motives and outcomes of the new law, including accusations of slavery in both directions. "Why should a person be a slave to unions because he or she wants to work?" asked one protester backing the reforms, while an opponent of the bill claimed, "Without the union, you're nothing but a slave."   

Slavery aside, the dispute comes down to power — as most such disputes do. Republicans want to limit the political power of the unions by taking away a stream of revenue that is forcibly extracted from paychecks and deployed to a large part on behalf of Democrats.  Democrats want to protect the political power of unions, which have thrown in entirely with Democrats over the last few decades, and want to preserve the forcible extraction of dues in order to keep their own revenue stream flowing. The real question is which outcome provides the most harm to workers, and to liberty itself.

The labor movement claimed that Republicans in Michigan have taken away the right to collectively bargain by undermining the union’s revenue stream. That was actually more true in Wisconsin, where the reform restricted collective bargaining for most public-employee unions to wages only, an effort to keep the Wisconsin Educators Association Trust from a virtual monopoly on supplying benefits — which saved Wisconsin hundreds of millions of dollars almost overnight. The Michigan right-to-work legislation doesn’t limit collective bargaining in the public or private sectors, at least not through legislation.  

However, unions claim that the reduction in revenues and dissent in the workforce will weaken their hand at the bargaining table, lowering wages and working conditions. That might be true, but it’s not as if much of the revenue goes to that purpose now. Michigan Capitol Confidential took a look at recent federal filings by Michigan’s largest union, the Michigan Education Association, and discovered that only 11 percent of dues went to "representational activities." Over half of the dues (61 percent) went to "general overhead" and benefits for union employees rather than direct services on behalf of workers. No dollars got spent "on behalf of individual workers," the form notes, but almost $5 million went to "political activities and lobbying," nearly a third of what was spent on "representational activities."   

Perhaps workers support that distribution of their money.  If so, they still can support the union through voluntary dues payments.  Nothing in the new law prevents workers from doing so, but the success of generating revenue will now depend on the union providing workers with enough good reasons to pay dues, rather than just taking the money before workers even get their hands on it. In any other enterprise other than government tax collection, organizations have to convince consumers and/or members that their goods and services are worth the price demanded. Why should that not be true of unions?

Will this kill the power of the unions in Michigan? That may have already happened even without a theoretical-but-likely reduction in revenue from right-to-work legislation. Michigan voters had an opportunity five weeks ago to preclude the legislature from taking this step by passing Proposal 2, which would have amended the state constitution to make closed shops and forced dues collection unassailable. Even while right-to-work critic Barack Obama handily won the state by nine points, Proposal 2 lost by 16. The legislature took that result as a sign that Michigan voters want reforms that put them in charge of their own paychecks.

Workers should have the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers, if they so choose, but workers should not be forced into funding unions as a condition of employment. Unions at one point embodied reforms that transformed workplaces from exploitation to partnerships, and made great advances in worker safety, autonomy, and dignity. Unfortunately, they have in some ways become as intransigent, unaccountable, and as consumed by the pursuit of power as management of old. Perhaps a little reform will do them some good, too.